The Parent Imperfect took the time this past Wednesday to write that no deal had been reached on the bill to lift the cap on charter schools in our state. Normally, the failure of a bill to get a positive recommendation from the relevant committee would be the kiss of death, at least for the current session. But this is not just any bill. As many feared, the failure to gain the support of the Joint Education Committee created only a minor annoyance for the drive to create open season on charter school expansion in Massachusetts.
Little did I know that the people in the Massachusetts Legislature who feel that lifting the charter cap is the critical next step in educational reform in Massachusetts wouldn’t even wait 24 hours to resurrect the idea. Before Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz could even communicate with her constituents about what had happened, her illustrious Joint Ed Committee Co-Chair, Rep. Alice Peisch, had done the deed. The State Rep. from Wellesley created a new bill with a new number and without the language on charter reimbursements that so bothered charter growth proponents. Under the new bill, there would be no cap on charter expansion, even if the Legislature declined to reimburse even one cent of its legal obligation to school districts for charter tuition payments. The maneuver made a joke of all of the hand wringing around a supposed compromise on the original bill.
Citizens for Public Schools called the new Peisch bill a “zombie” bill, which I think nicely captures the nature of the legislation. Not only did Rep. Peisch produce the zombie bill in record time (it was certainly being drafted as the compromise charade was underway), but she managed to get it approved by a voice vote at a sparsely attended session of the House of Representatives (is there a roll call in the House?). I disagree completely with what Ms. Peisch did, but you have to admire her cheek.
Peisch delivered to charter proponents what Sen. Chang-Díaz had refused to give them…legislation to remove the cap on charter expansion with almost no conditions. In less that 24 hours, public school districts and the families who depend on public schools had been “peisched.” That is, outmaneuvered by a legislator with a strong personal commitment to education reform, and little or no sense of accountability to urban public school districts and the families that need them. A reasonable person might ask if Rep. Peisch’s alleged personal involvement with charter and other educational reform organizations might create a conflict of interest, or at least a conflict of conscience for her on this issue. One might wonder such things, but, in Massachusetts, such questions often go unanswered. Any conflict here would, of course, pale in comparison to the conflicts that abound in our “government by checkbook” at all levels.
The Peisch bill still must clear several hurdles to become law. The Senate must approve it and the Governor must sign it to name two such hurdles. Charter expansion obviously has as many powerful friends in the Legislature as it has outside of it, and the governor has expressed few reservations about creating more charters. That said, the public discussion of this bill has educated many in the community, as well as some in the media and more than a few members of the Legislature about the lack of accountability of charters and the financial and other pressures on public schools that result from charter growth. This is not a slam dunk.
Merely getting peisched one time will not keep these people from continuing to make their views known. I remain hopeful that the zombie bill–or at least the charter cap provision–can be put on hold. For the umpteenth time, I do not oppose charter schools or think existing schools should be closed down. They should be more accountable on many issues, and their number should not be significantly expanded until policymakers understand much better (and address in a policy) the impact of such expansion on traditional public schools and their students. Ultimately, if we want to establish a separate system of essentially independent schools, we should find another way to finance those schools that does not drain financial and political support from public school districts.
If you are concerned about the zombie bill, take a few minutes and contact your State Representative and/or State Senator on the matter. If you’re not clear who this is, it’s easy to find your legislators and their contact information.